As with many issues working their way through American courts, legal challenges to political gerrymandering have had their calculus upended by the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Indeed, one expert offered that the odds of seeing the Court identify a standard for determining whether a political map has become unacceptably partisan “plummeted” with Kennedy’s announcement. But as long as American political representation appears not to reflect the politics of Americans, the movement to reform the drawing of districts will continue to find support.
Such reform is just one of many deemed necessary by Allan J. Lichtman in The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present, forthcoming this September. To Lichtman, the failure to include a guaranteed right to vote in the American Constitution was an error that’s plagued the nation since its inception, and along with a rule combining anti-gerrymandering and the establishment of independent redistricting commissions, he identifies the elimination of felon disenfranchisement, expanded voter registration, and a move away from holding national elections on regular workdays as reforms that would transform voting in the United States. In the following excerpt from The Embattled Vote in America, Lichtman outlines some of the spiraling ramifications of the prevailing practice of politically-drawn districts.
In America’s hard-fought and closely contested presidential election of 2016, only 59 percent of voting-age citizens cast a ballot, equaling about 86 million lost votes. Donald Trump won the presidential election of 2016 with 63 million votes, just 28 percent of America’s voting-age citizens. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 38 percent of American citizens participated, equaling about 140 million lost votes. In closely contested U.S. Senate races across the nation in 2014, candidates typically won seats with votes equal to about one-fifth of the state’s citizens of voting age. Turnout is yet lower in local elections. A 2014 study by two University of Wisconsin researchers found that turnout in 144 mayoral elections across the nation averaged only 25.6 percent of the citizen voting-age population. Thus, candidates could win mayoral elections with support from just over 10 percent of their citizen voting-age constituents.
Turnout is similarly bleak in primary elections that set the choices for voters in the general elections. In 2016, when both parties had spirited contests for their presidential nominations, about 28 percent of voting-age citizens participated in the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries combined. In states holding caucuses, turnout averaged merely 7 percent. Only about 8 percent of American citizens chose Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee and only about 6 percent chose Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. In midterm elections, primary turnout is yet lower. In 2014, just 28.4 million voters participated in the primary elections in forty-five states that had at least one contested statewide primary for both parties, equaling about 15 percent of the citizen voting-age population in those states.
In 1900, the United States led the democratic world in the voting participation of its citizens. Now roles have reversed and America trails most comparable democracies in voter turnout. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study of thirty-five nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked twenty-eighth in voter turnout.